So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
At the heart of the Christian life is seeking after the will of God, while at the same time resisting all the forms of wrong-doing we often find ourselves intermeshed within. However, as both our experience and the Scriptures repeatedly testify to, we see others and ourselves fall short of this purpose time and time again.
As we experience the failure in our own sin and error, we can be tempted to go one of two directions: we can be tempted to try to address the resulting loss of self-esteem from our sin by minimizing the Gospel call to holiness, to suggest that God really doesn’t expect or want us to pursue a perfection. God’s grace and forgiveness is appealed to not just simply as God’s continued love for us even as we sin, but as a reason that we don’t need to really seek a purity of heart. In such a state, we may be tempted to think that we can live satisfied with perhaps our decent but flawed or horribly disfigured spiritual and moral lives with the false confidence that God will be with us in the midst of all of this, no matter if we seek to follow Jesus or not.
Then, there is the other temptation to resolve this loss of self-esteem by re-upping on the type the behaviors that may make us seem good in our eyes and/or in the eyes of others. We can call this compensation, where we seek to ground our sense of our goodness in the sight of God, or even others, by all the things we do that show how “good” we are. This compensation can come in various forms, such as performing exemplary deeds or ‘helping’ others, and putting forward to others about our ‘goodness’ and successes. However, one of the most tempting forms of compensation is pointing out the sins of others. To the extent that our self-esteem is derived from how we feel about ourselves relative to others1, we can become tempted to compensate for our spiritual imperfections by consistently pointing out and characterizing the perceived sins in others, which may make us think we are pursuing holiness like the Pharisees thought they were reaching for purity. This was at the heart of the Pharisees religious practice during Jesus’ time that he pointed out in Matthew 7.1-5:
Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.
Jesus’ prescription in such a case is to focus on one’s own sin and become freed from it. While this may often be said with a hint of derision towards those who we think unfairly judge, and thus a form of compensatory characterization, Jesus’ words are more so an apt description of the cure needed for their illness. Their own sin has blinded them regarding others, seeing what is in themselves as being in others, making them “hypocrites.” The solution is to focus oneself and address one’s own sin so that they can then be of aid and assistance to their brother.
At the heart of Jesus’ prescription is freedom. In order to be able to help our sisters and brothers in Christ, we must be expunged ourselves of the very sins we find others committing. Without this, we risk incurring judgment upon ourselves. The good news is the very heart of Jesus’ ministry is to bring us to this freedom.
However, this freedom entails that we neither accept the pathway of spiritual malaise nor compensation, but an ever consistent learning from Jesus’ words, which ultimately points to His our own action of sacrificial love that guides us. Jesus says in John 8.31-32 that true disciples continue in His word and this leads to knowledge of truth that sets free. Let us point out what Jesus does not say. He doesn’t say by thinking about God and Jesus you will be set free. Freedom doesn’t come by how much you pray and praise God in and of itself. He doesn’t say you can be free from sin by compensating for it. One must, ultimately, learn from Jesus’ own words.
However, this learning must come from a sense of patient humility that accepts that we don’t readily understand and that we must first be examined ourselves before we can understand. In John 8.31-32, Jesus was speaking to the very Jews who have believed Him but were in their heart actually seeking to kill Him. As Jesus spoke of this deeper truth of sin that resides in the hearts of people, they argued and resisted Jesus’ words to them and eventually sought to stone and kill Jesus. They could not accept the words of Jesus, but they quickly abandoned it as Jesus spoke to the sin in their heart. They could not take the blow to their own sense of identity that Jesus’ words presented. As Jesus warned in the Beatitudes, persecution comes to those prophetic figures who are seeking to bring God’s shalom by helping people to see their sin, repent, and discover the (deepening) life that God’s gives.
Continuing in Jesus’ word so as to bring us into freedom can be a bumpy process. Jesus’ words suggest that truth and freedom doesn’t come immediately from receiving Jesus’ word, but one must regularly continue to learn from Him as a true disciple. While it is often times said in evangelical circles that getting “saved” when we believed frees us from the power of sin along with the guilt of sin, this is only a partial truth. When we believe, we have found the source of God’s life that can free us from the powers of sin and death, but we must fight against these powers before we come to experience this freedom. When we are “saved” we come to a powerful friend in the Holy Spirit who we comprehend and understand through learning from Jesus that can assist us in fighting back against the previously forced, imperial servitude to the powers of sin and death, but we are faced with the dilemmas of following the Spirit or following the flesh. Only by putting to death the deeds of the flesh by the Holy Spirit do we come to discover this freedom, but we can only identify and know the work of this Spirit as the Spirit brings the life spoken in Jesus’ words to true comprehension. Freedom from sin, often times referred to as sanctification in Wesleyan circles,2 comes from a long, sustained obedience in the same direction.
That this freedom emerges in the long-run is perhaps the reason that Paul warns against appointing leadership over the church who are newer converts (1 Timothy 3.6). As impressive as some might be, the pathway towards freedom from sin doesn’t generally occur overnight or even the course of a few years. Spiritually young Christians may show impressive potential in their lives and a remarkable change in their life, but they haven’t necessarily rooted out all the sin in their lives. They are still in the need of putting to death the deeds of the flesh, including the pride that can be incurred by being observed as a fast riser. Being vaulted into a position of spiritual leadership at such an early point may make them conceited and fall into what Paul calls the “judgment of the devil.” Their is still much work for them to be done in discovering the truth for oneself to becoming truly free from sin.
This is why the mercy and forgiveness of God is such an integral part of the good news, and why we ourselves must learn to forgive those who speak and act wrongly. While painful words may be spoken in such a case that may cause a blow to self-esteem, much as a prophet often has to tell people of their own misguided nature, it is forgiveness that allows people to know that they can confidently continue in this spiritual growth towards freedom through continuing in the words of Jesus. God forgives and we are called to forgive not so that we can protect people’s feelings, but God forgives and we forgive so that people can feel a confidence that God and others have not rejected them in the midst of their own spiritual struggle.
So, let us cast aside all the ways we try to protect our self-esteem from our own sins and errors by either accepting mediocrity or compensating and, instead, seek to continue in the words of Jesus Christ, so that we can know the truth and be set free.
- To be straightforward, even if you are consciously comparing yourselves to others, we all unconsciously derive our sense of our selves by where we stand relative to others. It is inescapable due to our inherently social nature that makes our sense of identity a function of our social relationships. What isn’t fixed, however, is who and how we compare ourselves to others. For Christians, this ultimately leads us to compare ourselves to Christ.
- Although, I slightly disagree with the Wesleyan definition of sanctification when it comes to the way the word is used in Scriptures, even as I accept the theological trajectory of Wesleyan focus on sanctification.